The Same As it Ever Was: Permanence in Technological Chaos
Good golly, it's like it's actually happening to me!
Sheldon is battling Trolls and solving puzzles on an 80s era text-based adventure game. Though he initially frames it as nostalgia to his roommate, it quickly escalates to engagement that is immediate, urgent, and authentic. The game is old and outdated, but it still has impact. Decades after its creation it remains a perfect manifestation of its original intent. Form and function are in balance and are able to provoke response.
Though the scenario is sitcom fiction, the complex and confounding interplay between technology, text, and what it means to be outmoded or obsolete seem to ring true. Which brings us to the book.
As Bonnie Mak reminds us in How the Page Matters, the page “is a technological device” (2011, p. 18). It is also a changing one materially and, by extension, in form. In one way, looked at as changing technology, it seems intuitive and obvious to predict its demise, that it might have an end as well as beginning. Out with the old, in with the new as it were. Yet the book has never really gone away through the rise of print journalism, of radio and TV, and, now the internet and electronic media.
Obsolescence occurs when we no longer value an object, not simply when something ‘newer’ enters the scene. Value is not an inherent characteristic of a given object, it is a complex interplay between text, technology, and audience.
Of these, the text is perhaps most permanent. Words fixed on a page (or ‘the work’ in other media) have longevity. Interpretation may change but the text ‘is what it is’ until is it changed by version or edition.
Technology changes at a more rapid pace. Even within the relative static world of print, changes in materials and capacity would have an effect on both what was produced (high art vs low art) and presentation (influencing interpretation).
It is tempting to look at technological advances in terms of progress; one technology supplanting the last; the current media the pinnacle of historical achievement. Perhaps it is more useful to view different technologies as simply the addition of different methods/voices for connecting text with audience. Though there is an evolutionary aspect at play, media need not be descendants of the same ancestral line (at least not until far up the chain). The addition of a new class, family, or species need not demand the elimination of another.
Of the triad, the audience is perhaps the least static – changing tastes, changing views, forever growing and developing; being influenced by outside forces.1 Our fickle individual tastes, however, are bound within a society and culture.
Darnton’s communication circuit lays plain the environment that surrounds the production of a book. Though at core a book’s purpose may be connecting “authors with readers” (2007, p. 504), practicalities demand an ecosystem of players to manage scarcity of resources and bring books to audience. Embedded within the production of a book are the values of a market. In as much as a book is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas, it is perhaps, more so, an object to commodify ideas. For a large swath of history it was impossible to untangle the two. Physical production backed by human effort was required to produce and move ideas.
With the advent new media the line between author and reader has never been more direct. Paywalls, digital rights management are not natural barriers that exist but our own constructions, borne out of economics, politics, and values derived from a western tradition and market factors. As Eisenstein concludes “the dawn of a new age with new media” is bound by “the ineluctable persistence of the past” (p. 555).
It is worth remembering, even if it is trite, that when the triad of technology, audience, and text is in place, the work is relevant, at least on an individual level. It is aggregate of such interactions that ultimately create impact at a societal level.
1 My son was watching Dana Carvey’s The Master of Disguise on Netflix, a movie mostly universally reviled by critics and audience during its initial run in 2002. Looking at it now, it struck me as simply Dana Carvey being Dana Carvey. Dana Carvey 1990 was popular. Dana Carvey 2002 was not. He didn’t change. The audience did.
Darnton, R. (2007). What is the history of books? Modern Intellectual History, 4(3), 495-508.
Eisenstein, E. L. (1995). The End of the Book?: Some Perspectives on Media Change. The American Scholar, (4). 541.
Mak, B. (2011). How the page matters. [electronic resource]. Toronto [Ont.] : University of Toronto Press, c2011 (Toronto, Ont. : Scholars Portal, 2013).